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Nanotubes and Antimatter:
Energy Resupply for the Future Battlefield

In the first of three articles on scientific advances at the atomic, molecular, and photonic levels, the authors discuss the potential for greatly reducing, or even eliminating, the energy supply chain.

The U.S. military is experiencing an unprecedented period of adjustment as it transforms its combat forces for the future while simultaneously executing the Global War on Terrorism. The Army and the other services need to transform the way they model, design, deploy, and sustain their forces. As Army and joint combat forces alter their concepts of deployment and employment, they must modernize the logistics systems that support those concepts. Achieving dominance across the entire range of combat operations—particularly combat operations dealing with asymmetric threats—poses considerable logistics challenges. Army and Department of Defense engineers and scientists must stay abreast of significant discoveries in new technologies and applications that will benefit Army and joint logistics operations. As logisticians, we should stand ready to incorporate these technological advances into our systems and business processes in order to maximize the benefits they offer—reductions in the cost, time, and manpower needed for support and increases in readiness.

This is the first of three articles describing the potential benefits to Army and joint logistics of research and development at the atomic, molecular, and photonic levels—a scientific and technological field known as the Revolution in Atoms, Molecules, and Photons (RAMP). RAMP research significantly affects three areas of utmost importance to Army and joint logisticians—energy, materials, and communications (in the broadest sense). Now, and to an even greater extent in the future, resupply of energy on the battlefield is a pervasive issue that must be addressed. Materials research is another crosscutting scientific area that first and foremost affects the reliability of systems, components, and parts. And the drive toward a global, joint network-centric communications capability requires many advances in communications technologies, such as data source collection; data collation, storage, and analysis; knowledge management and decision support; and information dissemination.

RAMP Benefits to Logistics

The Army’s scientists and engineers are expanding the limits of paradigm shifts by applying transformational technologies that will give soldiers unprecedented capabilities to achieve decisive victories. RAMP is the key that will lead to those victories.

RAMP is pervasive in all areas of research today. The Federal Government, the private sector, academia, and international organizations are increasing funding for RAMP developmental applications. The products of these technologies can and will provide significant benefits to Army and joint logistics in the months and years to come. Army logisticians must be ready to apply the tremendous benefits gained from RAMP as we move forward in the 21st century.

Army and joint logisticians will realize relevant and timely benefits as RAMP research begins to provide nanoscale technologies and products with practical applications. [Nanoscale refers to objects that measure from 1 to 100 nanometers. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, so nanoscale objects are far too small for the human eye to observe.] Reducing the demand for resupply of energy on the battlefield; increasing the reliability of equipment at the platform, component, and part levels; and providing global “24/7” communications capabilities at all echelons of logistics, while decreasing the vulnerability of combat and support forces—all can be attained through the products that RAMP research is expected to deliver now and into the future.

Birth of RAMP

In 1985, Dr. Richard Smalley, a research professor at Rice University, discovered “bucky balls.” This breakthrough marked the beginning of RAMP. Bucky balls are nanoscale objects that are no larger than 1/1,000th the diameter of a single human hair and can be seen only with the aid of a very high-powered microscope. By the late 1980s, three significant pieces of research equipment had been developed that enabled widespread nanosceience research: the scanning tunneling microscope, the atomic force microscope, and the near-field microscope.

In 1991, Japanese scientist Dr. Sumio Iijima discovered carbon nanotubes. The properties dis-played by carbon nanotubes were most unexpected. Their strength was 30 to 100 times greater than steel (depending on the purity of the tubes), and they were excellent conductors of electricity.

Continued research into materials designed and manufactured at the nanoscale (essentially at the atomic and molecular level) has uncovered novel properties in strength, conductivity, and porosity. The same materials manufactured with conventional methods do not exhibit these properties. The ability to see and manipulate structure at the atomic scale was enhanced significantly with the discovery and introduction of a new scientific instrument called an “atom tracker,” which allows observation of an atom in motion.

Parallel to this nanoscale atomic and molecular research and development has been scientific research of light and its photons. [Photons are massless elementary particles that are the carriers of radiant energy.] Scientists discovered that photons, like electrons, could be used to transmit and receive messages. Photons, a source of energy, could be captured in materials. Nanostructure, in the form of nanorods, could be manipulated to increase this capture of energy by several orders of magnitude. [Nanorods are formed from multiwall nanotubes.] The result was nanocomposite photovoltaic material, or solar panels, which had practical application as a source of energy for powering electrical devices. RAMP research exploited these discoveries as scientists gained greater insights into the properties of nanoscale materials and light.

National Policy

Our Nation’s commitment to research and development at the nanoscale is codified in both the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act and the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). Supporting this legislation and the NNI are the National Science and Technology Council’s Committee on Technology; the Interagency Working Group on NanoScience, Engineering and Technology; and a comprehensive network of laboratories and research centers across the country. The principal Department of Defense participants in the NNI are the Directorate for Defense Research and Engineering at the Office of the Secretary of Defense level, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the Air Force, Army, and Navy.

Energy Applications From RAMP

Technologies resulting from RAMP research include superconducting materials that can be incorporated into batteries to increase their useful energy significantly and thus extend their life; alpha emitter batteries that can provide required energy output for years instead of hours or days; and antimatter that has the potential to deliver all the energy required to move, shoot, and communicate for the life of a combat system. Each of these RAMP technology applications in energy would reduce dramatically the frequency of resupply currently required of logisticians or, in the case of antimatter, virtually eliminate the need for energy resupply.

Similarly, alternative energy sources such as biomass (vegetation), photovoltaics, and hydrogen have gained viability as applications as a result of RAMP research. These energy sources could reduce the supply chain from thousands of miles to hundreds of miles and, in the case of photovoltaics, provide a renewable energy source at the point of consumption, thus eliminating entirely both the energy supply chain and distribution process.

Energy density, or the amount of usable energy in a given quantity of fuel, is one critical issue in reducing the demand for energy resupply on the battlefield. Alternative sources of energy are critical to shortening, or in some cases eliminating, the supply chain and distribution distances needed to replenish energy on the battlefield. Products developed as a result of RAMP research offer a means of achieving greater energy densities as well as viable alternative energy sources.

Batteries

One needs only to look to the ever-present cell phone to find an increase in usable energy that is the result of nanoscale research and development. The batteries in 60 percent of all cell phones contain carbon nanotubes. These carbon fibers are superconductors of electrical current. The resulting reduction in electrical resistance and the energy needed to overcome resistance make more energy available to power the phone. In everyday terms, the charge in the batteries containing carbon nanotubes lasts longer. Armed with this knowledge, logisticians should ensure that future batteries include this technology, thus driving down the frequency of battery resupply or recharging. This practical application of RAMP research can be implemented today through changes in acquisition policy.

Alpha emitter batteries contain exponentially greater energy than the current state-of-the-art lithium-ion batteries. [An alpha emitter battery uses a very small, nonharmful amount of radioactive material as a power source.] While lithium-ion batteries may last for hours, or at best days, alpha emitters last for years. Logisticians have to resupply literally tons of batteries per day to a brigade-sized unit. Alpha emitter batteries offer the prospect of reducing, if not eliminating, much of the battery resupply or recharging required today. Implementing this supply chain and distribution solution will require making changes in acquisition policies and answering users’ questions about working with very small nuclear devices. One way to overcome negative stereotyping of small nuclear devices is to point out the similarity between alpha emitter batteries and the alpha emitters found in the smoke detectors and alarms in our homes.


Antimatter

In the Star Trek television series and movies, antimatter was the energy source the Starship Enterprise used to power its warp drive. While Star Trek was science fiction, antimatter is science fact. [Antimatter is matter with its electrical charge reversed. Instead of protons, it has antiprotons; instead of electrons, it has positrons.] For many years, leading university research centers at Harvard, Penn State, and other colleges and universities have produced and experimented with antimatter. Antimatter, as an energy source, has such great energy density that one button-sized portion has 123 times more energy than the space shuttle has at liftoff.

Such extreme energy density has far-reaching implications for logisticians and for energy resupply on the battlefield of the future. For example, a combat vehicle commander could be issued a cigar box-sized container filled with buttons of antimatter that would provide 30 to 40 years of energy to move, shoot (with high-energy weapons), and communicate. This capability would virtually eliminate the requirement for energy resupply of combat vehicles in the future.

Scientists have discovered how to levitate antimatter in an electromagnetic field. The practical capture of the energy released from antimatter, in such a way that the energy could be metered out in usable increments, requires further exploration in the laboratory. One day, this dense energy source will make its debut on the battlefield. The tremendous benefits to resupply of energy will be well worth the time and investment.

Alternative Sources of Energy

Biomass. Scientists working at the molecular level have discovered a protein in the spinach leaf that naturally harvests energy from biomass. This discovery offers logisticians an alternative to the long supply lines associated with hydrocarbon (petroleum) energy sources. The tropical areas of the world are rich in land-based biomass, while many arid areas are adjacent to or near the world’s oceans, where huge sources of sea-based biomass are present in the form of sea kelp and other vegetation. In fact, 40 percent of all the Earth’s biomass is in the oceans. Being able to harvest the energy from nearby biomasses would vastly shorten the energy supply chain while simultaneously reducing dependency on hydrocarbon-based fuels.

Photovoltaics. The ability to see and manipulate materials at the molecular and atomic levels has allowed the design of new photovoltaic (solar cell) materials. These materials can capture and store greater magnitudes of solar energy (in other words, photons from light). This is achieved by aligning the photovoltaic material’s nanorods, thus providing a clearer path for photons to enter the material and be captured and stored as electrical energy. Disordered (unaligned) nanorods require several low-mobility hops for a photon to span the active layer, which reduces overall mobility. Controlling the orientation or shape of nanorods eliminates the need for hopping and thus increases captured energy (photons). The next generation of photovoltaic materials will be capable of producing energy in quantities sufficient to power climate-control equipment for pre-positioned supplies and equipment, embedded prognostics, and autonomous communications equipment without the requirement to refuel generator engines or replace batteries.

Hydrogen. Hydrocarbon-based fuels cannot be used forever because they are a nonrenewable, finite resource. Hydrogen is becoming an increasingly attractive alternative. Heavily funded, worldwide research, development, and prototyping of systems that use hydrogen as an alternative energy source are taking place.
Hydrogen is a colorless, odorless gas that accounts for 75 percent of the entire mass of the universe. On the Earth, it is found only in combination with other elements, such as oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen. Hydrogen must be separated from these other elements before it can be used. One of the key advantages of hydrogen as an energy carrier, which helps to make it more than economically competitive with hydrocarbon fuels, is the large number of options for its production and delivery. Most of the world’s automotive companies have developed prototype vehicles, ranging from small subcompacts to high-performance sports cars, pickup trucks, and delivery trucks, that run on hydrogen using either a hydrogen internal combustion engine (H2ICE) or a hydrogen fuel cell.

Hydrogen energy could greatly reduce the distances in the energy resupply chain because it could be produced at or near the point of consumption—a very attractive alternative for Army and joint logisticians. The byproducts of hydrogen-powered fuel cells are heat and potable water (another consumable of great interest to Army and joint logisticians). Hydrogen-powered vehicles provide logisticians with an evolutionary means to gain independence from hydrocarbon-based fuels, increase vehicle drive-train reliability, increase vehicle energy efficiency, and reduce life-cycle operations and sustainment costs.

RAMP research clearly holds significant promise for resolving the complex challenges associated with energy resupply on future battlefields. As follow-on Army Logistician articles will show, RAMP research activities in the fields of materials science and communications also hold great promise for producing newly derived technologies that logisticians can use.
ALOG

Robert E. Garrison is a logistics management specialist with the Army Logistics Transformation Agency, Future Logistics Division, Science and Technology Team, at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. A recently retired chief warrant officer (W–5) with over 32 years of active service in the Army, he has an associate’s degree in general studies from the University of Maryland, a bachelor’s degree in vocational education from Southern Illinois University, and a master’s degree in general administration from Central Michigan University.

David E. Scharett is a senior research scientist with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory on assignment from the Department of Energy to the Army Logistics Transformation Agency at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. A command pilot with experience in both fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, he has over 37 years of Government service. He has a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and a master’s degree from Golden Gate University and is a graduate of the Air War College.